A Dinner with the Dead
Recently, I've become a member of the Academy of Magical Arts and its Hollywood clubhouse, The Magic Castle. The Castle has always ranked high on my list of places to recommend to people visiting Los Angeles, because there really is no place like it on the planet.
I could go into endless detail about the Castle: its strange history and even stranger architecture, its place in the world of magic, and its perception in popular culture. But I'm going to write about one specific meal I had at the Castle in the Houdini Seance Room.
Like most of the rooms in the Castle's dining area, the Seance Room was once a bedroom. More than the other small dining rooms though, the Seance Room still feels like a bedroom. The room itself is a squished circle, and you could imagine it filled with a four poster bed with a canopy. A large round table takes up almost the entire room. Twelve chairs are squeezed around it making for a cozy dinner.
In each of the room's corners and on every inch of every wall there are relics from the lives of Harry and Bess Houdini: a vintage milk can that he would escape from; the trunk in which Harry and Bess performed their most famous trick, Metamorphosis; a pair of shackles and handcuffs; and an organ that is said to have belonged to Bess, though the provenance isn't totally clear.
Over the last decade or so, the Castle has attracted a younger generation of exceptional magicians who are pushing the art form (and the Academy itself) in new and fun directions. One of them, Rob Zabrecky, was our medium and host for the Seance.
The evening's experience is inspired by a series of Seances that Bess Houdini held on Halloween night--the anniversary of Harry's death--each year on the roof of the nearby Knickerbocker Hotel. As part of the Seance, audio recorded at the most infamous of those Seances is played.
I won't spoil the experience for you, but the evening contains all sorts of delightful and charming magical effects that involve the various pieces of Houdini memorabilia around the room.
The night I went, the room was filled almost entirely with magicians, so there was no one who didn't know how the tricks were done or what was going on, but that is part of the beauty and fun of magic--believing and disbelieving at the same time.
The final effect is a nice reveal of two magic chalkboard slates that have been under a candle for the entire evening. Mysteriously though a message has been scrawled on them: "This Seance...is a hoax." A perfect way to encapsulate the Academy's mantra that magic isn't real, and that's what makes it wonderful.
I liked the wife, but not the husband. I did not like the husband because of what the wife, my friend, had told me about him for years and because I had met him before and he seemed insufferable. But the wife, my friend, Carol, asked me and my husband to dinner because she knew I'd like the dining companions they'd invited--the head of a large company of an industry in which I wanted to work.
It turns out that he, insufferable husband, is a superb chef with a collection of French wines going back decades.
Every dish he and Carol served could have come from a Michelin-rated restaurant: the onion tart had a flaky pastry shell and just the right mix of sweet and salty. The vegetable tian had layers of carrots, squash, and broccoli that melded together to look like a Van Gogh painting and taste, well, indescribably good. The slices of beef cooked just so and laid out on a platter like a starburst. The tarte tatin, then the rounds of cheese brought out for dessert with a fresh baguette, and dessert wine.
However: Each course throughout the evening was accompanied by the husband's bringing the conversation back to him. Every word uttered. The trip to the ocean: He'd been to one like it, but better. The new car someone had bought: He'd bought a new car once, and there was a story to it. The speeding ticket in Europe: Why, he had a speeding ticket and it cost more and he was going faster. The onion tart: he got the recipe from a world-famous chef who kept a well-known restaurant open late one day just for him.
The last tasty straw was the lecture about why he knows cheese is OK for vegans to eat. (There were no vegans present.) He hectored me when I ventured to mention "rennet," because he knew someone very well in France who makes cheese and, he said over and over again, claims that cheese aren't OK for vegans are BS. Over and over again came that word: "Bullshit." Woman-who-I-wanted-to-talk-to-more-but-never-had-the-chance-to finally googled it and confirmed for him what rennet is. Still, he ranted: "Bullshit. I know someone who makes cheese, and..."
I lost it finally and started snarling. Essentially, I said, I know this because I've researched it, stop talking about it, already.
The food was good, but the monopolizing of the conversation, well, it left a bad taste in my mouth. But it made for a memorable meal.
Being a retail man, my father took great care fostering his relationships with suppliers. He knew them all by name, asked about their lives, and made the time to show they meant something to him. I do not believe he did this to get a good deal, although it is possible. I believe my father reached out to others because that is simply who he was. He became successful at his job because he was successful with people.
Some of those suppliers were local; good old American Made products! Others were across the world. I remember him staying late at work to be able to reach the company in Hong Kong he needed for something.
It was 1986, and we were deciding where to go on a family vacation. The original plan was Europe, but then terrorist attacks and bombings were happening, and our travel agent advised us against going. My mother swore it would be over her cold dead body as long as nut jobs were blowing things up.
So where to go?
Although old enough to be part of the discussion, I was not privy to how the decision was made that we would go to Hong Kong and Bankok. My father reached out to those suppliers, and I reached out to a few girls who had graduated from Miss Porter's with me, and before we knew it, we were on a plane to Hong Kong for a somewhat whirlwind tour of the Orient.
The contact who hosted us, I have long forgotten his name, spared no expense. We cruised around Hong Kong harbor, swam in the South China Sea, and were treated like royalty.
Then it was time for dinner. Oh Boy!
We sat at a round table, eating family style. We were in a harbor, so of course, there was plenty of seafood on the menu. I am not one who cares much for seafood. I am really not a fan of most fish.
The meal consisted of several courses, the first of which was meant to "cleanse the palate". There was soup, cooked greens, and then the main course. There was tremendous pomp and circumstance. Chefs paraded through the restaurant and made a gallant show for the guests. Then it was time to serve the main course.
Of course, it was fish.
Of course, it was a WHOLE fish, with face and everything.
Of course, they placed it on the table so the damn thing was looking directly at ME!
I can't eat something I have named. This stance extends to things that are looking at me before I try to eat them! Throughout the rest of the meal, I had the face of death literally staring at me. How on God's green earth was I supposed to eat that? Grab a piece of the carcass and chow down?
It was an honor, my mom said.
The fish is good, my dad said.
Uhm - thanks but no thanks.
Pasta e fagioli
I've had a lot of really good meals in my years on this earth. Homecooked lasagnas. Elaborate backyard paellas. Wonderful Michelin-starred restaurant meals. Fabulous Turkish breakfasts in Istanbul, and remarkable ramen in Tokyo.
But the meal that stands out most sharply in my memory was unplanned and completely unexpected.
In late 2002, Amy and I were traveling around in Europe and we made a stop in Milan. It was, out of the gate, a mixed bag for us. The newsstand in the train station where we sought out a map? Full of porn. Then there was the guy in the phone booth who had to show off what he had in his pants as we walked by. Our budget hotel seemed to be red-light adjacent.
It was dark early, of course, but we gamely took the subway out to another part of the city looking for a restaurant. This was the fashion district -- not where the pretty people are, but where the clothing probably gets made. It seemed industrial -- but what it really seemed like was closed. We walked for blocks down the street where this restaurant was supposed to be, and never found it.
Things were feeling desperate. We had passed a little restaurant that was open, so we backtracked and stepped inside. It was tiny, maybe 500 square feet. There was a long family-syle table along the left as we walked in and a few scattered two-tops. The open kitchen was in the back corner, with an open-flame grill going. It was mostly empty of other patrons as I recall.
Thank god that when you step into a restaurant anywhere in the world the people running it just know to feed you no matter that you don't speak their language.
The woman who seemed to be running things gestured for us to sit down. The menu was just handwritten someplace, on a chalkboard or a piece of paper. It didn't matter. We couldn't read it. She pointed to some things and we just nodded.
We got some bread and probably some water and wine. And in a few minutes time bowls of this rich and wonderful pasta e fagioli, made with chickpeas. I didn't know chickpeas could be so Italian. Then she produced tender and perfectly grilled lamb chops off that open flame.
We would've stayed all night and eaten anything else in their kitchen, but it was clear we'd stepped in as they were wrapping up their night. We paid them and smiled as widely as we could to convey how very, very happy this meal had made us.
To this day I have no idea what the name of that restaurant was, nor could I possibly ever find it again.
A Night to Remember (but not the food)
The most memorable meal I ever had changed my life in multiple, profound ways, but that's not to imply that I remember what it was I ate.
The woman whom I'd later marry invited me to eat with her brother and sister-in-law, but I had no idea what that meant, even as I entered their home. Stefania and her brother were both Italians, born and raised in northern Italy until, I'd guess, their mid to late twenties and where they still had a home in Genoa that they visited several times a year. Vittorio, her brother, had married a girl from a small village in France, which made me the lone American at the table.
My idea of dinner, up until that moment, had been what I considered the typical American meal: one plate, maybe with a leading salad if we ate at a restaurant, and very occasionally a dessert. My mom taught me that one plate was all that was needed and it would typically contain some meat and often some sort of vegetable that never impressed me.
That's how everyone I knew ate, and how I figured everybody ate.
This night, I learned different, and it wasn't until the meal was over and I was back home that I realized I'd just had a literal seven course meal. To say I was proud is an understatement: I was in awe, and it was as if my whole life opened up to an entirely new and different way of living.
The first thing that struck me, afterwards, was that we'd sat at the table for six hours or so, eating and drinking. I'd never before considered eating an activity, a pastime, something to savor and enjoy. It was more like satisfying a need, but these Europeans made it an event, the entire night's activity, and I'd never seen such a thing in my life.
This was entirely new to me, from the series of delicious courses, to the realization that a number of small courses was how people ate. It wasn't at all the one plate with an immense amount of food, it was a succession of plates, each wildly different from what preceded and what would follow, and each plate accompanied by a glass of a different wine.
Yes, I'd heard of seven course meals, or read about them in books, but I'd never before had one, and they all acted as if it wasn't all that unusual. No one said anything about it, but over the following years as we got together and shared and hosted other meals, nothing changed my life as dramatically as that first meal. These people knew how to eat and celebrate and enjoy a life that I'd never imagined or considered, and I guess the snob in me that night took to refusing any longer to use a fork to cut my meat and to see the wonder in eating, talking, and enjoying incredible food leisurely, the way it was supposed to be.
My mother is making “kousa,” (COO’ sa) one our favorite dishes. I am 10 years old and helping her in the kitchen, hollowing out the green zucchini and yellow squash for “kousa mahshi,” or stuffed squash in Arabic. She is stuffing the lamb into the grinder that Granny, her mother-in-law, gave her so she could make “the food” for my Lebanese father. Ground lamb and rice, stuffed into the squash and then cooked in a pot of tomato sauce and spices.
This kousa is for Sunday dinner, at midday, after we return from church. We go to our mother’s Episcopal parish, not the Roman Catholic Church in which my father was raised. Like most of his doctor friends, he is an atheist, but all we kids know is that he’s too busy taking care of sick people to have time for church. So we go with our mother and thank God for him.
We are all dressed up from church and there is something special to eat. That is our Sunday ritual. Our dad loves kousa and so do we. It has a special flavor of tomato, lemon, and allspice that makes our house smell like Granny’s.
I have a picture my father took of us at the table for Sunday dinner. Unlike his usual steady, focused shots, this one is blurred but everyone is recognizable. We’re all laughing hard and he must be laughing too, just as he took the photo --a quick pan to one side creating a blissful vision of smiles and laughter.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it
From 7th grade well into college, the majority of Thanksgivings in my family were spent with my Dad's older sister and her family in a suburb of Chicago, and other various and sundry aunts, uncles and cousins. Thanksgiving was a good compromise, as my dad was raised Jewish, so it allowed us to avoid all religiously-themed major holidays and still get to see them every year.
That sister, my Aunt Janet, became the defacto matriarch of the family when my grandmother died, and once traditions were set that first year we gathered in 1997, the were never questioned again. We haven't been there in years and I can still rattle off every major detail. What's more memorable than that?
For Wednesday dinner, Janet would always serve spaghetti and garlic bread for whoever had arrived by then, and without fail, dessert was chocolate-covered frozen bananas that my uncle either had an interest in, or were a business of a friend of his. That evening, we'd play scrabble and/or shred homemade challah bread for my aunt's infamous stuffing, and sneak cousin Ellen's cranberry white-chocolate cookies.
The next morning my sister and I would sleep late in the 3rd floor spare room, but my aunt would be up and bustling early, basting the turkey. My 2 adult cousins would show off their pies: one cherry, one pumpkin, one apple (for variety! says my aunt). Lunch is our choice of pastrami, turkey or roast beef on rye from the local deli, with those shoestring potato chips out of a can (every year, no question), eaten in the kitchen while watching football on a small, ancient TV. Always one to do as the Romans do, I choose pastrami.
Dinner is a comforting and familiar dance: hors d'oeuveres in the formal living room; my aunt pretending she doesn't want help, but secretly we all know we'll hear it the rest of the night if we don't; chocolate turkeys and a fruit centerpiece on the table; the story of Thanksgiving told by the youngest person there ('til recently, my sister--but then our 2nd cousin Josh got old enough to speak in full sentences and so the job fell to him); always capped off by the reliable finale of hanging our dessert spoons from our noses--or cheeks or ears for the more advanced among us.
At some point, someone will point at my uncle's prized statues of Groucho, Chico and Harpo and make a bad Marx brothers joke. At some point, someone will say "surely you must be joking!" and we'll all say in unison "don't call me Shirley!" And at some point, someone will recall the fateful year my Uncle Sandy, who is a prime A-1 knowitall who can't bear to be corrected, parked in a tow zone when we all went to see Wicked and had to spend the next several hours in Chicago's seedy underbelly getting his car back.
Don't get me wrong: there is a fair amount of family dysfunction too, but even that follows a familiar contour that waxes and wanes over the long weekend. But that's family: as reliable as the sun's setting and rising, as annoying as a blinking fluorescent bulb that's about to burn out, and as lovable as the kid brother who somehow always gets back into your good graces.